The Children’s Book – A. S. Byatt

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I had a love-hate relationship with this book and have to admit that there were several points, especially in the middle, where I nearly gave up on it.

The Children’s Book is set in England in the last few years of the 19th Century and ends in during the first world war. The book follows a vast number of characters, mainly children, as they grow up in this often forgotten period of history.

The book is packed with detail about the news events of the period and the lifestyles they led, but it’s richness was also it’s downfall for me. The book was very long (the hardback I read was 600+ pages of tiny type) and the descriptions so detailed that it lacked momentum. I had to become immersed in the beautiful writing  of each paragraph and try to forget that I still had 400+ pages to go, and I didn’t really know where the story was going. It focused on the minute details of their lives, which although interesting, often failed to engage me and led to my mind wandering. I’m still not sure whether I made the right choice in finishing this book. It took a very long time to read, and although I now know a lot more about that period in history I do not feel I have gained much. It didn’t really entertain me, and the ending didn’t merit the build-up.

I’m sure that lots of people will love this book, but although I enjoy a bit of detail this went a bit far for my tastes. It is a beautifully crafted book though, and will probably win this year’s Booker prize. So if you fancy being transported back to the early part of the 20th century – give it a go.

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This is the first book written by A. S. Byatt that I have read, although I vaguely remember giving up Possession after just a few pages.

Do you enjoy reading books written by A. S. Byatt?

Which of her books is the best?


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33 Comments

  1. Claire says:

    I am not rushing to read this novel, although if it was by another author I possibly would. I’ll probably have to though if I end up reading the Booker nominees.

    The only AS Byatt book I have read is The Little Black Book of Stories and I was unimpressed.

  2. Susi says:

    I have heard so much about this book that I might give it a chance. But my relationship with Byatt is a love-and-hate one ever since I had to read ‘Possession’ for a class and thought it was one of the most dreadful books ever written.

    I know that there are many, many people out there who love ‘Possession’, but it simply wasn’t doing it for me.

    So maybe, if I really have the time, I might read it, but seeing as my TBR pile is already stacked up to the ceiling, I might just pass on this one.

  3. Jackie says:

    Claire – I’m sure this book will make the Booker short list, and will probably win – that is why I decided to give it a try! I look forward to hearing your opinion once the Booker list is announced!

    Susi – I’m pleased I’m not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with Byatt. I know lots of people who love her work, and I really admire the quality of the writing, but I need more than beautiful descriptions to enjoy a book.

  4. Claire says:

    Jackie, I will definitely share my opinion with you! I was looking forward to it earlier this year for the plot alone but something seemingly has since put me off.

    I bought a copy of Olive Kitteridge yesterday on offer as it will probably make the shortlist and, besides, I like to read the Pulitzer winners. I also want to read Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman, as I think that will make the list too. I am attempting to read pre-emptively!

  5. Jackie says:

    Claire – I don’t think Olive Kitteridge is eligible for the Booker, as she is an American author. I think it is impossible for someone to win the Pulitzer and the Booker, although there may be some loop hole I don’t know about. Olive Kitteridge is very good though, so I hope you enjoy it.

    I hadn’t heard of Kieron Smith, Boy before, but agree it looks as though it could make the short list. If I spot a copy in the library I’ll get it. otherwise I’ll wait for the list to be announced.

    I agree – it is good to try to get a few of the books under your belt before the list is announced, as it can be quite daunting trying to read the whole list very quickly. It also shows a bit of book sleuthing skill – trying to spot the books in advance. I do love it.

    Have you seen that Simon thinks The Taste of Sorrow will make the list:
    http://savidgereads.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/bronte-fever-anyone/

    I’m just hoping The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey does.

  6. Claire says:

    Oh, of course, it is ineligible! For some reason I got it into my head that Elizabeth Strout was Canadian.

    I hadn’t heard of Kieron Smith, Boy until a few days ago when it won the Scottish Book of the Year (Kelman was also in contention for the International Booker this year). As it is set in Glasgow, and I am from Glasgow, I am most interested in reading it.

    I still have The Wilderness to read and will need to be on the look out for The Taste of Sorrow but only once I have controlled my out-of-control TBR list and current library requests.

  7. Nicole says:

    I have couple of her books on my shelf. The blurbs were always so interesting that I can’t help but to want to read her. But when it comes to actually reading her I haven’t had much luck. Possession is the one I tried as well and I didn’t get that far. Like you, maybe a few pages. I felt better when a friend of mine who had managed t get further along wasn’t really taken with the detail of her writing either. I still want to give reading one of her books a more serious try at some point.

  8. Jackie says:

    Claire – I don’t think I’ll ever have my TBR pile under control! Good luck with that!!

    Nicole – I thought the Children’s Book was much more readable than Possession, although that may be because I read a lot more now that I did five years ago when i attempted it. I’m reading all the Bookers, so will have to give Possession another try at some point, but it is nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t like the detail of her books.

  9. JoAnn says:

    I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Byatt, although Possession has been on my shelf for years. 600 pages is a long time for a love-hate relationship!

  10. Jackie says:

    JoAnn – Yes – it’s a good job that I loved some sections. At least now I have a full picture of what she’s like as an author.

  11. Violet says:

    Sounds interesting, but I dread chunksters with my reading speed.

    That book in your TBR section “Last book of Salem” has such a beautiful cover and title. Please ge to it fast so that I can know how it is :)

  12. Tracey says:

    I’m another that didn’t do well with Possession – I felt like I should have loved it but half way through I got too bogged down and let it go..

    Thank you for your review of The Children’s Book – I had seen it and wondered about it. Think for now, I will let that one goes as well.. 0:)

  13. Sarah says:

    I haven’t read this yet as it is quite a commitment!

    I would wholeheartedly recommend Byatt’s short stories though, especially Sugar and other stories or The Little black book of stories. The attention to detail and richness of her writing makes each short story a pleasure to read.

  14. Caroline says:

    I’ve never read Byatt before but keep hearing great things about this. It does look rather daunting though! I wonder if I should approach it as a history book rather a novel.

  15. Jackie says:

    Violet – I don’t mind how long a book is – in fact most of my favourite books have been chunksters (A Fine Balance, Fingersmith, Gone with the Wind…) but if a book is long it has to be able to hold my attention – I’m afraid this one didn’t.

    Tracey – You got further than I did with Possession!

    Sarah – I can see why she might write great short stories. I might give them a try one day, but I’m not a big fan of short stories – they always leave me wanting to know more.

  16. Jackie says:

    Caroline – Thank you for commenting for the first time! I think approaching it as a history book may be a good approach – you do learn a lot about everyday life at the turn of the century.

    PS. I was about to say that I recognised those bottles from somewhere…..then I clicked through and realised where I had seen them before. I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  17. Steph says:

    I read Possession back in highschool, but I fully admit that I skipped all the parts in italics (i.e. the poetry) – in fact, I had a teacher who advised I do just that! A while back I bought myself a cheap copy of the book so I could re-read it, because I think I might like it better now, but I haven’t really had any burning desire to read any more Byatt since my first encounter with Possession.

  18. Jackie says:

    Steph – I don’t think I even got as far as reading any poetry in Possession! Perhaps it is something we’ll appreciate when we’re older?

  19. CarolineC says:

    Hi Jackie.
    I havn’t tried A S Byatt before and this sounds quite hard work to be honest. Why do they have to have so much detail? I’m sure I will look it over at some point, it keeps getting mentioned around and about the net. It does have a very enticing cover though.

  20. Beth F says:

    I’m not likely to read this one. I don’t think I’ve read Byatt.

  21. I’ve seen this book around, and have been toying with the idea of picking it up. It’s one of those books, that I think I’ll either really like, or dislike.

    I think I might hold off on this, and wait to see what the Booker shortlist comes up with. If it’s on that, I will probably end up reading it.

  22. Karen says:

    Like you Jackie I gave up on Possession very early on – it just did not grab me at all. I am currently working my way through The Children’s Book – and I mean working, because although there are some beautiful moments I am finding it very difficult to connect with. I am keeping on with it at the moment though because I just can’t believe that a book this beautiful on the outside could not also be great on the inside!!! I’m so sad!!

  23. Jenny says:

    I was addicted to Possession when I read it the first time, but I’ve never had the urge to reread it. And I’ve never been able to get into any of AS Byatt’s other books, for just this reason – so very, very slow-moving.

  24. softdrink says:

    I think I’ll just be content to stare at the cover then.

  25. Jackie says:

    Caroline C – I found it quite hard work to read, but there are a lot of people out there who love this book. I agree – the cover is amazing. It has to win the prize for the most beautiful cover this year.

    Beth – I don’t think this is an author you should rush out and buy!

    uncertainpriniciples – Yes this book will divide people, although I think I’m down the middle. It went far too slowly and was hard work, but in the end it was OK – I didn’t hate.

    Karen – I found it hard to connect with too. It is hard work at times. I will be interested to hear if you decide to make it to the end. I know lots of other books with terrible covers that are amazing on the inside, so it probably isn’t the best way to judge a book, but the good thing is that it will look good on your shelves when you’ve finished reading it!

    Jenny – It’s interesting that you were addicted to Possession. Perhaps you just have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate this sort of writing?

    softdrink – Good idea! It is beautiful!

  26. Morton says:

    I have not read this one yet but I can tell you that Byatt would be better in short fiction than in the Novel.

    However,
    However, let us ask our selves what is fiction? Is fiction not literature? The act of using WORDS in an artistic way to tell a wonderful story. Sometimes I almost submit to thinking Literature has slipped down the drain in this age because of the pressure to commercialize but really there are still fiction that are as great as the literatue of the elizabethan age even.

    If Byatt is to be judged as a literary writer, she is there, among the lofliest of the lot. Many of you know that The Book of Black stories is one of the best literary collection of this age and so is Possession too. Great stories told with the language in focus. spmetimes though, this may not grate for some. It may be slow read but this is what makes the Grape of wrath extremely essential read. what about The god of Small Things or Oscar wao? It is in the language of literature.

    But unfortunately this seems not to grate for many any more. The are mostly interested in the easiness of the story. I recently read a book that I think should not have been self-published after it was mentioned during a recent trip to Nigeria in Africa. The Native Hurricane by Chigozie Obioma. The story and language was so evocating that eventhough there were scenes of horor, I found it a pleasant read.

    Whoever wonders why books such as Khaled Hosseini’s works are not great works, it is in its language.

  27. Jackie says:

    Morton – Thank you for commenting for the first time, and for leaving such a thought provoking comment.

    I agree that the pressure to commercialize has led to more fiction books to be published, but there are still lots of great pieces of literature out there. I admit to loving a great story though. The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters may not be the best piece of literature out there, but the characters, atmosphere and complex plot makes it one of my favourite books. There is room for both in the market, and I do appreciate beautiful language too.

    It is interesting that you should mention The Native Hurricane – it was recommended to me by a Nigerian too. I have a copy here, and look forward to reading it.

  28. bellezza says:

    It comforted me when you said that you had to give it a couple of tries. One of my favorite books of all times is Byatt’s Possession, but I owned it for years before I finally got through it. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad that you brought this one to my attention. I have her book The Whistling Woman, but of course, that’s unread as yet, too.

  29. I love(d) Byatt and have read almost all her novels (with the exceptions of her three most recent ones: Babel Tower, A Whistling Woman and this one). My favourite is/was Possession. The reason I’m hedging with the past tense is that when I read her books several years ago I loved them, but I recently tried to reread Possession (and I generally enjoy rereading books I’ve loved) and I couldn’t get into it. I find her writing style is very dense and intellectual (though not without passion), so she definitely requires a certain mood.

  30. Rebecca Reid says:

    I loved Possession because of it’s capture of language and the poetry elements. It’s meant to be a slow read — not the “thriller” the movie tried to make it be. This new Byatt has intrigued me. I may have to look it up.

  31. Mel says:

    I finished my first A S Byatt book yesterday, “The Biographer”. I loved it and will for sure read a lot more of her books.

  32. I know what you mean about the details… I actually thought that the story was marvellous and as always with Byatt it was extremely well written – but I could do without the disquisitions on various subjects that just seem to pop up in the narrative.
    On the other hand, my love of the cover is totally unqualified.
    Thanks for sharing
    Hannah

    1. Jackie says:

      Hannah, It has to win cover of the decade :-)

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